Is democ­racy on the wane?


IS there a demo­cratic re­ces­sion? No, not an eco­nomic one, rather one of the vot­ing kind? In other words, is democ­racy go­ing backwards? It is not. Democ­racy re­mains re­silient. Author­i­tar­i­an­ism is be­ing held at bay, de­spite re­ces­sion in Rus­sia, Turkey and China. “Democ­racy may be re­ced­ing some­what in prac­tice, but it is still glob­ally as­cen­dant in peo­ple’s val­ues and as­pi­ra­tions,” writes Larry Di­a­mond in a new book, “Democ­racy in De­cline”. In fact, Di­a­mond’s pos­i­tive con­clu­sion is less pos­i­tive than I be­lieve the facts say. By and large democ­racy is not re­ced­ing.

One prob­lem in the mea­sure­ment de­bate is that we ex­pect too much. From the mid-1970s to the early 1990s, the num­ber of democ­ra­cies in the world rose from around 45 to an as­ton­ish­ing 120, cov­er­ing well over half of the world’s pop­u­la­tion. How can one rea­son­ably ex­pect all th­ese to suc­ceed? There is bound to be some slip­page. Why should we ex­pect this hot pace to con­tinue? So why the catch­phrase “Democ­racy in de­cline”? There are at least four global democ­racy in­dices: Free­dom House, Polity, the Econ­o­mist In­tel­li­gence Unit and the Ber­tels­mann democ­racy in­dex. Look­ing at the years 2000 to 2013, the world is more demo­cratic to­day than it was in 2000.

Of the above four, only Free­dom House shows a de­cline, and that is ex­tremely mod­est. How­ever, I ad­mit, if we break this down a bit and look at the pe­riod from 2005 on, we do see a de­cline, but again a very mod­est one. Even Free­dom House shows that the over­all net num­ber of democ­ra­cies or near democra- cies in de­cline was only two be­tween 2005 and 2013. Be­tween 2005 and 2013, there were 10 coun­tries that sig­nif­i­cantly im­proved their demo­cratic prac­tice.

More­over, most of the sig­nif­i­cant de­clines oc­curred not in full democ­ra­cies, but in regimes that were al­ready some­what au­thor­i­tar­ian, such as the Cen­tral African Re­pub­lic, Gambia and Guinea Bis­sau. As for fully fledged democ­ra­cies clas­si­fied as “free” in the 1990s, only two went into a ter­mi­nal state of af­fairs: Thai­land and Venezuela.

Over the same pe­riod, eight coun­tries be­came “free” and are still to­day: Brazil, Croa­tia, Mex­ico, Ghana, In­done­sia, Peru, Ser­bia and Sene­gal. The truth is that there is an il­lu­sion of back­slid­ing. One rea­son is the ex­ces­sive op­ti­mism shaped, in part, by the ex­traor­di­nar­ily suc­cess­ful democrati­sa­tions of the pe­riod 1974-1991.

In south­ern Europe (Spain, Por­tu­gal and Greece), in South Amer­ica (Ar­gentina, Brazil, Chile and Uruguay) and in Cen­tral Europe (Bul­garia, Cze­choslo­vakia, Hun­gary and Poland), au­thor­i­tar­ian crises led to new democ­ra­cies. But th­ese de­vel­op­ments led to two mis­takes among ob­servers.

First, peo­ple be­gan to con­flate au­thor­i­tar­ian break­down with democrati­sa­tion.

That was not al­ways the case. In Poland and Spain yes, but not in Iran and Pak­istan. Most au­thor­i­tar­ian break­downs failed to bring democrati­sa­tion. The num­ber of “new democ­ra­cies” was lower than many ob­servers be­lieved.

There was quite a bit of “win­dow-dress­ing”, with re­forms meant to defuse a short-term cri­sis, but con­trol was main­tained through the army, po­lice, me­dia and courts. Sec­ond, some ob­servers seemed not to no­tice how easy it was in that pe­riod to over­throw au­thor­i­tar­ian lead­er­ship be­cause regimes were bank­rupt, their states were in dis­ar­ray and, in many cases, had lost con­trol of the co­er­cive ap­pa­ra­tus.

Au­toc­ra­cies were eas­ily top­pled in Al­ba­nia, Be­larus, Benin, the Cen­tral African Re­pub­lic, Con­goBraz­zav­ille, Ge­or­gia, Mada­gas­car, Malawi, Moldova, Niger, Ukraine and Zaire. This easy-to-over­throw sit­u­a­tion is not likely to re­turn.

Com­pared to th­ese heady times and the end of the Soviet Union that fol­lowed in 1991, there has in­deed been a de­vel­op­ing be­lief that democrati­sa­tion does not ad­vance to­day at the speed it did ear­lier. But in fact there is no rea­son for dis­ap­point­ment with the sit­u­a­tion as it is in 2016.

It is as good as we could hope for. To­day, many make an­other mis­take. They look at the set­backs in China, Rus­sia, the Mid­dle East and lately Turkey and see not much hap­pen­ing else­where in the world on the pro-democ­racy front.

But Turkey apart, the other three have long been — for cen­turies — and will long be the dif­fi­cult cases. More­over, the “low-hang­ing fruit” have been picked — the coun­tries left that need democ­racy are the hard cases.

Ex­am­ples of th­ese are some of the weaker states in sub-Sa­ha­ran Africa, dy­nas­tic oil-pro­duc­ing coun­tries sup­ported by the West, sin­gle-party states with high eco­nomic growth, coun­tries with tra­di­tion­ally a lowlevel link­age with the West, and in regimes born fairly re­cently in blood and rev­o­lu­tion.

The fast growth of democrati­sa­tion in the 1970s and 80s gave us false ex­pec­ta­tions. We reached a plateau af­ter a great climb. This is not a call to rest. It is a call not to be pes­simistic. There has been no melt­down. It is a story of re­silience and enor­mous progress. Per­suad­ing the lag­gards will be hard, but there is no good rea­son for so much pes­simism. —Courtesy: Agen­cies

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